You might have seen Paterson’s Great Falls in The Sopranos. But there is more to the place than a backdrop for a crime drama. A hundred years ago, Paterson became the center of American labor conflict when over twenty thousand silk workers walked off the job for months.
The Lenni Lenape had known the falls for years, but Europeans began to settle the area in the seventeenth century. Shortly after the United States won independence, influential citizens looked to the Passaic River as a potential source of industrial power.
In 1791, the Society for the Establishing of Useful Manufactures was created. With Alexander Hamilton in a leading role, and New Jersey’s governor and Federalist-controlled legislature backing the initiative, Paterson would soon become a center of manufacturing.
The early mills were powered by water channeled through a series of raceways. With gravity behind it, the water was able to turn the massive wheels that powered the machines. Here’s a diagram from the American Labor Museum:
The remains of the raceways can be explored not far from the falls.
The raceway system would be replaced with electric equipment powered by water-driven turbines from a plant directly below the falls. The SUM plant operated from 1914 to 1969, then reopened with updated equipment in 1986. It averages about 33 million kilowatts of electricity production per year.
Paterson’s silk industry began in the mid-nineteenth century in a mill complex near the banks of the Passaic River. A number of industries thrived in the complex at one time, including cotton textiles, steam radiators, and Samuel Colt’s first revolver factory, but silk weaving and dyeing became its primary activities.
Many of the 1913 strikers worked there. Unfortunately, after the complex was abandoned in 1983, fires destroyed the buildings and plans for restoration or redevelopment have not made it through the maze of city politics.
Another building the strikers would have known is the Phoenix Mill, built in the 1810s and converted to apartments in the 1980s.
The laborers and the owners of the silk mills both wanted to get what they thought they should earn from production. At the time, silk manufacture required skilled weavers to prevent damage to the delicate fabric. Many of the weavers were immigrants who brought not only their skills, but also the fierce pride and willingness to challenge the bosses that were typical of skilled artisans.
Large silkworkers’ strikes had taken place in 1877 and 1894, but nothing on the scale of the 1913 strike. Following the defeat of the 1902 dyers’ strike, which saw significant violence and property damage, the city’s business owners were able to take greater control of the local government and strengthen its police force under new chief John Bimson. Their efforts were bolstered by prejudice against Italians.
At the beginning of 1913, the Doherty mill introduced four-loom assignments, replacing the previous two-loom assignments. This meant that workers would be overseeing more machines and many would lose their jobs. The Doherty workers walked out. By the end of February, workers at all the silk mills in Paterson were on strike. 24,000 men, women, and children walked off the job. Demands expanded to include better working conditions and an eight-hour day.
Workers did not see themselves benefiting from technological advances that increased production.
As one striker put it:
[A]s a rule we never receive any benefit from improved machinery they put into the mills… It only antagonizes the workers the more, because they can see themselves that they can produce more under the improved machinery; still they get less wages.
The Paterson workers called on the Industrial Workers of the World for assistance. The IWW was emboldened by its recent success in Lawrence, Massachusetts and was enthusiastic about helping the Paterson workers.
On February 25, 1913, IWW speakers, including Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Carlo Tresca, addressed a crowd in Paterson and were quickly arrested. A crowd of 1500 striking workers met them outside and followed the police escort despite being bludgeoned by officers.
The strike was run by workers through their elected Central Strike Committee, but many citizens thought that the IWW and its charismatic leader Big Bill Haywood were actually in charge, and furiously searched for a “responsible party” to deal with. Exactly how much the IWW leaders influenced strikers or led events is debated by historians, but their presence strengthened the resolve of workers and gained significant attention from outside observers. They also contributed their knowledge of organizing what would be a largely non-violent strike.
Worn down by hunger, by the ability of manufacturers to outlast them, by the continued operation of Pennsylvania silk mills, and by mounting pressure from police and private detectives, workers began returning to the mills in July after making deals on a shop-by-shop basis. The demands of the general strike were not met, but events in Paterson helped focus more public attention on labor conflict and prepared workers for future struggles.
The Great Falls Cultural Center, which has a lot of helpful literature, lists the strike among noteworthy Paterson events.
The city of Paterson was run by the manufacturers in 1913, but its suburbs were not. After police suppressed assemblies in Paterson, the Socialist mayor of Haledon invited strikers to meet in his town. One of the most significant meeting locations was the Botto House, where speakers rallied thousands of workers from the balcony and representatives of hundreds of shops met.
The Botto family arrived in America in 1892. They were a family of skilled textile workers from the Biella region of Italy. After years of hard work in American mills, they were able to afford a small plot of land in Haledon and build a house, which was finished in 1908. It served as a family home, guest house, and cottage industry while the Bottos worked six days a week. During the strike, the Botto house was a place of hospitality and free speech.
Today, the American Labor Museum resides in the Botto House, with permanent exhibits on the 1913 strike and a few rooms furnished with what skilled workers would have owned (unskilled workers had significantly less). A Strike Centennial exhibit will open January 11.
Harnessing the power of the Passaic River made Paterson a center of industry and a center of social conflict over how the profits of industry would flow. By exploring old buildings and the devices used to harness the power of the Passaic, the story can be better understood.
American Labor Museum exhibits and website. Botto House National Landmark, 83 Norwood Street, Haledon, NJ. http://labormuseum.net
“The ATP Site.” Paterson Friends of the Great Falls. http://www.patersongreatfalls.org/thesite.html
Carlson, Peter. Roughneck: The Life and Times of “Big Bill” Haywood. New York: W.W. Norton, 1983.
Fleming, Thomas J. New Jersey: A History. New York: W.W. Norton, 1984. Pages xi-xiv.
Golin, Steve. The Fragile Bridge: Paterson Silk Strike, 1913. Temple University Press, 1992.
Quote from a worker about technological advances is from The Fragile Bridge, page 22.
“The History of Paterson’s Silk Industry, 1839-1945.” The Paterson Museum. Courtesy of Great Falls Historic District Cultural Center.
Paterson Great Falls brochure. National Park Service, US Department of the Interior. Courtesy of Great Falls Historic District Cultural Center.
“The S.U.M. Hydroelectric Project.” Historic Notes. Great Falls Historic District, Paterson, NJ. Courtesy of Great Falls Historic District Cultural Center.
“A Visitor’s Guide to the Great Falls National Historic Landmark District.” The Paterson Museum. Courtesy of Great Falls Historic District Cultural Center.